Klay Thompson is too perfect of a fit for these Golden State Warriors.
On the good nights, the lesser known "Splash Brother" has Stephen Curry's shooting stroke and Andre Iguodala's tenacious on-ball defense. He helps the Warriors slay NBA giants or even look like one themselves.
As downright dominant as he can be on the high notes, though, he's equally ineffective during the low ones. He tries to shoot his way out of slumps, which only compounds his problem. As his shooting struggles linger, his confidence collapses, taking his production and Golden State's offensive success along with it.
Depending on what night you watch, he's either a pivotal piece in the Warriors' championship puzzle or a roadblock on their path to the podium.
For better or worse, the Dubs typically follow Thompson's lead.
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Thompson had one of his good nights Tuesday inside an arena that never takes kindly to visitors. And the Warriors, naturally, flexed their muscle while reminding the hoops world just how good they can be.
The schedule-makers had done Golden State no favors. For the fifth stop on a six-game road trip, they'd booked the Warriors for Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Indiana Pacers entered the contest a league-best 29-3 on their home floor.
The Dubs needed a perfect game—things couldn't have gone much worse.
Three of Jackson's starters saw fewer than 24 minutes. Curry had nearly as many shots (18) as points (19) and turnovers (four) as assists (six). The team misfired on seven of its 21 free-throw attempts.
Yet, an unexpected boost from the bench (34 points) gave the Warriors a puncher's chance. Jackson just needed someone to land that knockout blow.
Thompson, fresh off a 12-point, 4-of-15 showing during the Warriors' loss in Toronto Sunday, packed that punch. The third-year gunner caught fire in the final frame, torching the NBA's stingiest defense for 16 fourth-quarter points.
He finished the night with a team-high 25 points, saving his best bucket for last. With the score knotted at 96, Thompson backed down Pacers guard George Hill on the low block then unleashed a silky-smooth, coffin-closing turnaround jumper over the smaller Hill with only 0.6 seconds remaining.
"That's why you play -- to fight, to score to win," Thompson said, via Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group. "It was a lot of fun, especially winning on the road, silencing a crowd."
The shot did silence the stunned Pacers faithful, but it also got the basketball world buzzing. And not all of that chatter was good.
With the win, the Warriors became the first team this season to claim road victories against the Pacers and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. That doesn't happen by accident.
Yet, it's hard to call that a sign of elite status when the Warriors (37-24) are scrapping to hold on to the sixth seed in the Western Conference. It's tough to invest much in Golden State's championship stock when it's holding just a two-game lead on the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
The Warriors have shown a championship ceiling, but their floor extends well below the cutoff line for a true contender.
Thompson is too volatile to steady this team, but he has the tools to be that stabilizing presence.
There's a give-and-take with Jackson's other four starters.
Curry and David Lee are tremendous offensive talents, but they give back a lot of what they get at the opposite end. Andrew Bogut is a stone wall at the basket, but he's a non-factor on offense. Iguodala could be a two-way force, but he's been miscast as a floor spacer and doesn't get enough touches to make an offensive impact.
Thompson could be the exception.
While Jackson doesn't help him by putting him in isolation chances, this offense is largely suited to mask his weaknesses (creating his own shot) and exploit his strengths (long-range shooting). Of his 1,109 offensive plays this season, more than 46 percent have been either spot-up or off-screen shots. He has converted over 41.7 percent of his three-point attempts out of these two play types, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Thompson is the NBA's leader with 9.2 catch-and-shoot points per game, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. Nearly 96 percent of his 167 made threes have come off assists.
He doesn't have the deepest bag of offensive tricks, but the Warriors know how to maximize what he brings.
Unlike his fellow starters, there is no trade-off when he crosses the half-court line. He's averaging a career-best 18 points a night this season and arguably saving his best work for the other side of the floor.
"He's an elite defender," Jackson said of Thompson, via SLAM's Abe Schwadron. "Night in and night out, we ask him to defend the best perimeter player."
The numbers say he's passing those nightly exams.
Opposing 2s are managing just a 12.6 player efficiency rating against him—league average is 15.0—while point guards are posting a paltry 8.9, via 82games.com. With good size (6'7", 205 pounds), speed and smarts, Thompson is a lockdown defender now with even more room to grow.
If he's a consistent contributor for the stretch run, the Warriors should keep a stranglehold on the No. 6 spot out West.
If his shot goes awry and the rest of his game goes with it, though, Golden State is in serious trouble.
How long will the Warriors' playoff run last?
Jackson can't call for the "next man up" because there is no next man. There are no life rafts to toss when the bad Thompson is sinking the ship.
The second team is crawling out of the cellar, but this remains one of the least effective bench units in the NBA (25.4 points per game, 28th), via Hoopsstats.com. There is no greater void than the backup shooting guard spot.
Jordan Crawford arrived to tempered expectations and has still managed to lower the bar (7.2 points on 38.6 percent shooting). Former fan favorite Kent Bazemore was shipped out to net some badly needed point guard depth in the form of Steve Blake.
There are defensive challenges to pairing Blake and Curry for prolonged stretches, and offensive issues when Iguodala or Harrison Barnes slides into the 2 spot.
Jackson hasn't figured out how to address this issue, other than giving Thompson the second-heaviest workload on the team (36.8 minutes a night). As a key contributor at both ends, Thompson can't afford to take a possession off during his run, so he's left finding ways to deal with it.
As long as his shot keeps falling, the Warriors can live with it. If he loses his legs, though, he'll be all valleys and no peaks on the stat sheet.
Golden State needs to keep those high ceilings in his volatility. As long as this group can come up with four good postseason showings for every three bad ones, it can keep rubbing elbows with the league's elites—and steal some playoff series wins in the process.